The machine hisses, steam rises, liquid drips. Pale skin, black hair, blue eyes: the unsmiling and tattooed worker moves in a measured way. With his uninjured eye he traces the lines of the mortar in the brickwork behind her; with his tongue, the open wound in his mouth. The worker watches him fumble awkwardly. Observes the damaged skin consuming his right eye. In his stomach something like a sharpened coil periodically shifts, whether from injury or otherwise.
Sits down. Waits. Taut. Knotted. No words. Mindful of the door closing and opening. Flashes of slow white, expanding and retracting. No exit. Steam rising before him. Knows what’s coming. The anticipation of being replaced by…? Always the question. What is it, if the other person tells you they’re going to do it?
“Hey what happened here?”
Gingerly touches the bruised edges of his eye. Kisses him gently on the mouth, and he feels the wetness of her tongue.
“Tripped over, walked into a door, something like that.”
(Ashamed to admit to a dickhead punch-up.)
“You should be more careful.”
“Thank you for that advice.”
“And drink less.”
(Sober as a judge, actually.)
“It looks pretty bad. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m absolutely fine. Really.”
The pale worker brings a cup and a plate. Observes the seemingly intimate exchange. Returns to the machine.
(There it is, the glorious spread of her smile.)
“… happy anniversary to us. We’ve been together a whole year.”
“Yes. Happy anniversary to us.”
(Conjure the nonchalant façade. So well practiced.)
“That eye does look quite bad.”
“Really. It’s okay.”
(Take the plunge.)
“Get lucky last night?”
(Like asking about sleep quality.)
“Anyone I know?”
“He’s a friend of Hannah’s. I don’t think so. What about you?”
(What about me? That is the question.)
“Not my style as you know.”
“You could if you wanted. I’d be okay with it.”
(You’d be okay with it — hardly the fucking point though, is it.)
“You said so before.”
“We always talk about my misdemeanours.”
He takes a sip of his drink and on his tongue the steaming liquid spreads like sandpaper. He gives nothing away and stands, forcing a smile.
“I’ll bear it in mind. Back in a mo.”
Steps into the low-lit ceramic welcome. Head beating. Stomach sharp. A hidden, stinging rip of flesh in the soft cavity of his mouth. Last night. Barely lasted a minute. Victorious, yes, but the other guy gave as good as he got. Blackened the eye. Opened up this pulsating gash. Landed another punch square in the mouth.
Leans forward and spits a dark red on the gloss white. Last night his imagination was unreckonable. This time replaced by Hannah’s friend, he now knows.
The blood runs patterns on the gloss surface. The tattooed worker drifts in, unsuspecting, unaware.
“Sorry, I thought it was empty. You okay?”
“Last night. Got in a fight.”
She steps close and in the same measured way opens the tap and runs a slow flow of water and with her cloth wipes the sink clean.
“You sure? You’re okay, I mean?”
Looks at her in the mirror; porcelain skin, black hair in a tidy bundle. His own reflection is like rubble: red stained gums and red stained teeth.
“She keeps sleeping with other people.”
(Voice sounds so pathetic.)
“The girl you’re sat with?”
“I’m over it.”
Beneath them, a guttural gurgle, the last drips of the polluted water vanishing into the dark drain.
“There’s another way out, if you want me to show you.”
Down a narrow, concrete corridor. Floor stains pulling at their shoes in squeaks. She performs some secret act and nightlight and cold flood in.
Takes her hand, soft in his raw knuckles.
They run between solid brickwork. They run between mortar lines. The city is hissing like the machine in all its darkened corners, steam rises from flues and shafts, liquids drip like cold sweat. She runs ahead, her black hair undone and racing in waves behind her. The city and the night and her hair blur together and he can almost touch it, a single entity.
At a T-junction, by a car park, they stop, all out of breath.
“I have to go back,” she says.
He crouches down, the pain in his stomach acute. She sits beside him. He looks at her tattoo, a coil of flowers flowing all around her arm, and he closes his eyes and listens to the city roaring and pretends he is not in any pain.
“I have to go back,” she says again.
She types something into his phone and hands it back to him and, with the faintest smile, begins to recede, tying up her hair as she goes.
Watches her vanish amongst the white glows and the lines of car light and the recessed shadows. Stands, uncertain. In the car park, a movement amongst the rows of silent and convex tops. A figure rising, looking intently. Moves closer. A few seconds for the connection to be made.
He turns and runs. Runs for his life. But on the street he cannot keep control of himself and he stumbles and the back of his head slams down. As he lays there dazed and defeated, he hears inside his head words for the pain but they have come too late, and he looks up into a pale face but the eyes are not blue and the skin is not porcelain and the head has no neat bundle of hair, no hair at all in fact.
The face descends on him.
Blue lights are ringing out.
Someone approaches him in his hospital bed and embraces him. Arms without tattoos. Closes his eyes. Feels her wet tongue.
“I’ve been so worried about you. How you feeling?”
(How am I feeling?)
“I’m over it.”
Andrew Senior is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He lives with his wife and their offspring and writes whenever he can find the time to do so. He has been published here and there. But not everywhere.
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